Friday, 2 October 2009

16. The Assembly During the Feast of Tabernacles

Every seven years (the first year after shemitah), on the second day of suckot, the entire Jewish community, during the days when there was a monarchy in Israel, would assemble to listen to the king read a set of specific verses from Devarim. The underlying purpose, as Rambam explains, is to create a sensation in every individual reminiscent of Sinai.

I try to put myself into this reality. A crowded space. Jews of every denomination. One man at the front. The sense that it is not enough just to hear the words—in fact Rambam says that even if you can’t hear the words, you can still fulfill your obligation—but that I must experience something. How can I ensure that I will experience what I am obligated to experience?

What is the essence of the ‘Sinai Experience’? Of course, the giving of the Torah. But to say that Sinai was about the transmission of God’s Word does not fully encapsulate the extent of what occurred there.

It was not just that we each interacted with the Divine but that we each interacted with the exact same Divinity.

Although we are members of the same religion, and we live our lives according to the same basic laws and read from the same Torah, the psychological reality is that we each have a unique mind and, therefore (if not certainly then at least probably), a unique conception of God. When we discuss ‘God’ in an abstract sense, we often ignore this fact. But when we separate and each address God on our own, we do not address the same entity. You pray to your God and I pray to mine.

This fact is at the heart of the inescapable solitude of Man. I am tragically isolated from you, at least in part, because you cannot prostrate yourself to my God and I cannot prostrate myself to your God. When I yearn to be known by you, I yearn for you to recognize and acknowledge the same God that I recognize and acknowledge. This is the God that is with me when I fall asleep at night, when the regrets of the day overwhelm me, when my ambitions inspire me, when my fears distract me, when I plan, when I think, when I say “Hello,” and “Good-bye.” This is the God that I thank for my existence, the God that is with me when I am alone. And when I doubt that there is a God, this is the only God that I doubt. Without knowing and understanding the particular mysteries inherent to this God—my God—you cannot occupy the same metaphysical reality that I occupy.

But at Sinai, we all had the same God. Our metaphysical realities overlapped.

Does this mean that at Sinai the personal God was supplanted by an objective God? Should that be our goal, to eliminate the personal God?

It is unlikely. The personal God seems to be an integral part of Jewish existence. Even as we pray in a group, the most important prayer (shemoneh esrei) is said in silence; and when we sin against God, it is known that our confession of these sins is done privately. It is also impossible to read the God of Adam HaRishon as the same ‘character’ as the God of Avraham Avinu, or the God of Avraham Avinu as the same ‘character’ as the God of Moshe Rabeinu. To Bible critics, this may indicate inconsistency or proof of multiple authors. In truth, it indicates the reality of a personal God—a positive result of the proper interaction between a unique person of faith and the Almighty.

This is the conflict that is presented by communal worship. I am tempted to join with the masses in recognition of God because the solitude of worshipping a personal God—and so being alone in my metaphysical reality—can be agonizing. But, if I am honest, I recognize that, though we have congregated, we are each, conceptually speaking, addressing a different God. As the communal prayers progress, the end result for any contemplative individual is an increased sense of isolation. This sense of isolation is enhanced when the prayers reach a climax at shemoneh esrei. I am then aware that the God I turn to is exclusively mine. The relief that is sought in finding a community of believers has not been found and, in fact, the opposite has occurred: the more people that I see worshipping God, the more isolated I feel.

I believe that this is partially the purpose of communal worship: counterintuitively, to enhance the sense of a personal God. But there is also the Sinaitic God, the objective God. How can we find this God amongst a multitude of personal Gods?

If we assume that the Sinaitic God is coincidentally the same God for everyone present—that is, we assume that the objective God could have been exposed anywhere at any time under any circumstances and it so happens that it was here, at Sinai—we do not find an affiliation between the personal God and the objective God. But it is axiomatic that God’s revelation to Man cannot be coincidental. It can be deduced, therefore, that the revelation emerges consequentially from the circumstances: the key to the unearthing of the objective God is found within the assemblage of all verifiable personal Gods. (Which may be partially why the midrash states that 'all Jewish souls’ were present at Sinai—not miraculously, but necessarily: this is the prerequisite for the manifestation of the objective God.)

But how does this work? We cannot combine Gods—we will quickly discover mutually exclusive characteristics. But we can find God through the process of elimination: we maintain only the characteristics that are consistent with all Gods. Logically, the resultant God will be a God basically devoid of any qualities. He will be known, as Rambam has said, by what He is not.

This objective God cannot replace the personal God—we cannot relate to Him. But we can accept Him as the True God, removed from the psyche. He is the God emergent from negation. I imagine that being in a crowd of the entire Jewish population might, if things went well, result in the sensation of a universal Divinity (though it would, of course, lack the incontestable veracity of Sinai). Although this is not the God that we address on a regular basis (this mitzvah is only incumbent upon us once every seven years), it is important to remember that this God is the God that we knew at Sinai. In this way, the isolation that we feel in worshipping a personal God finds a modicum of relief: the metaphysical reality that seems to live and die trapped within each of us has relevance to the objective metaphysical reality; the personal God is vital to recognizing the presence of the Sinaitic God.

1 comment:

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

I find this post most interesting for it confronts the significant issue of how individuals with a relationship to a personal God bond together in a group motif and extend this relationship with God to the group. This is clearly an issue that is not analyzed enough and is at the centre, perhaps, of the view of many that while they believe in God, they have no interest in organized religion. What such individuals are basically stating is that they can only perceive God within the specific parameters of their person -- and the effect is the lack of perception of God beyond the person. I would add, though, that there may be another level that has to be contemplated between the perception of the personal God and the perception emanating from the group of, what my son terms, the objective God. This is the level of the perception of God of the nation. The gathering together of the nation of Israel to hear the reading of the king is specifically a gathering of the nation -- in fact the reading is by one who represents the concept of nation, i.e. the king. In this vein, in the process of bonding of individuals that my son describes the result may not necessarily be a perception of the universal, objective God but the result of this specfic grouping. In other words, while personal viewpoints may balance out the result may still be a perception of the Divine that reflects certain generic characteristics. This may in fact be one of the defining aspects of the religion of Judaism -- its belief in the significance of sub-groupings of humanity and the effect of this on the human perception of the Divine system. The idea that each nation of the world has its own specific guardian angel may, in fact, reinforce this type of perspective -- with the significance of Israel in that its specific perspective is marked by the direct supervision by the Almighty Himself. There is much more to be discussed in this regard but my son's words do open up a contemplation of the significance of the bonding of humanity in groups in our relationship with and understanding of God.

I would also add one more point that emerges from a contemplation of my son's words. He presents a structure of how individuals with a personal perception of God bond through the elimination of variant views that emerge from the personal perspective and bond through the remaining structure of what God is not. This, though, can only work if individuals are willing to recognize the uniqueness of their personal perception and that it, indeed, may not be shared by others. My feeling, though, is that many individuals when they consider bonding into a group, rather than seeing distinction and uniqueness in the perceptions of variant members of this group, see and attempt to define the other as having, in fact, a similar perception of the Divine. In other words, we create groupings by seeing others as sharing our personal perspectives. This may be a root problem in regard to many of our problems within collective Israel.

Rabbi Ben Hecht